Red Sox survive a tough April, hope for better times ahead

Red Sox survive a tough April, hope for better times ahead
May 1, 2014, 9:30 am
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BOSTON -- It's nothing to boast about, of course, especially not when you're the defending World Series champ. But the Red Sox' 13-14 record for the month of April could have been a lot worse.

Actually, more to the point, their 2 1/2-game deficit in the American League East standings could have been a lot worse.

Had the Red Sox been in a division in which a team got hot -- like, say, the Milwaukee Brewers have done in the N.L. Central -- the month could have been far more damaging.

As it is, the Sox haven't dug themselves too large a hole. They have not, metaphorically speaking, buried themselves.

Instead, they've been merely inconsistent -- unable to win as many as three in a row, but staying out of any protracted losing streaks. What's more, there's reason to believe that, at the very least, the Red Sox have found a sort of early-season equilibrium.

In the last week, they welcomed back Will Middlebrooks -- who hit the DL just four games into the season -- and Shane Victorino, who was laid up with a hamstring strain two days before the season opener.

It's likely not a coincidence that after scoring as many as seven runs in a game just once in their first 23 contests, the Red Sox have done so three times in the last four tries, now that their lineup is as they envisioned it.

The offense was supposed to be better than this. With just three regulars subtracted from a lineup that led the majors in runs scored a year ago, the Sox were expected to be prolific.

But if they've discovered anything in the first four weeks, it's that they miss Jacoby Ellsbury more than they expected. They can make do without his defense -- Jackie Bradley Jr. is at least as good in center -- and can even do without his stolen-base ability. What they can't seem to replace, however, is Ellsbury's penchant for getting on base and igniting the offense. The Red Sox have used five different players in the leadoff spot, none with great results. For lack of alternatives, it seems Dustin Pedroia is the choice, though he has said in the past that he would prefer to hit elsewhere in the order.

In the eight games he's hit leadoff, Pedroia is hitting just .216 with an OBP of .310. Some of those numbers are the result of the inflammation of the wrist that Pedroia has battled since the home opener and there are signs that he's finally more of himself at the plate: in the last 10 games, he's hit at a .333 clip with a .417 OBP.

Should Pedroia maintain that pace, the top of the Red Sox order -- backed by the return of Victorino in the No. 2 slot -- should heal itself. That, coupled with the recent production the lineup has gotten from the lower third, suggest an offense that is only now beginning to find itself.

The starting pitching has, with a few notable exceptions, been competent. The last homestand featured three starts in which the starter failed to get out of the fifth inning, the kind of performances which put games out of reach and tax bullpens.

But those would seem aberrations. Jon Lester and John Lackey have had 3 bad starts in 12. Jake Peavy has been solid.

The questions revolve around Felix Doubront and Clay Buchholz. The former is as maddeningly inconsistent as ever while the latter has been downright troubling -- until his most recent start.

The Sox are accustomed to slow starts from Doubront, but it was thought that better conditioning would help avert another. Instead, Doubront sports an ERA of 6.00 and a wHIP of 1.708.

On Wednesday, John Farrell issued a vote of confidence for Doubront, maintaining that there were no plans to pull him out of the rotation for a May tune-up with pitching coach Juan Nieves. Should it come to that, however, the Red Sox have some depth options, led by Brandon Workman.

Buchholz is more of a mystery, still needing to improve his arm strength a month into the season. If last Saturday's effort in Toronto suggested he had turned a corner regarding his velocity, perhaps the team's decision to ease him into the year will pay dividends.

Finally, there's the defense, which remains something of a trouble spot. Again, Victorino's return to good health can be a stabilizing force, leaving only left field as a potential weakness in the outfield. Xander Bogaerts' inexperience has been glaring at times at short, but the Red Sox continue to express their fullest confidence that he will improve. For now, they would be content with him merely settling down at the position.

One month down, five to go.

"We're going to get there,'' vowed David Ortiz Wednesday.

He was talking about better weather on the horizon, but he just as easily could have been talking about his team, still trying to get some traction after the first four weeks.